A serious-looking Chinese man handed me a fat wad of thousand-baht notes to pass on to a snaggle-toothed character in front of me. He in turn passed it to an even dodgier character in a pink shirt with a matching baby-pink towelling sweatband. I estimated that this mattress of money must have amounted to about half a million baht (around US$16,000) – and this was just the first of several bets he placed as the fight went on. Bullfights, Thai-style.
‘It’s an ancient Southern Thai tradition,’ says Neng – raconteur, manager and bookie. ‘At least a hundred years old.’
Yeah, well. We all have different views of what ‘ancient’ really means.
Another bloke, Singtho, wearing a black shirt with embroidered roses along with finely-tooled cowboy boots joined us (well, James Garner had just died and this man’s red eyes suggested he had been grieving – or something). He had been in the game only twenty years against Neng’s forty-five. Neng was six years old when he first laid eyes on a fighting bull.
‘Farmers used to have small contests whenever someone died,’ Singtho told us gravely, ‘but it (bullfighting) grew in popularity, and they started breeding bulls for strength. Rules were developed, and now it’s a sport.’ They nodded at me to make sure I wrote it all down.
Until then I had no idea that the nation I live in, Lao, also hosts bullfighting. But it’s the Vietnamese bulls that are best, they insisted. ‘Very brave, very strong, very expensive. Fight long time.’ Yes, I thought. Tell that to the US.
Thailand’s Deep South, a perennial political hotspot where over 6000 have died, is also home to Thai bullfighting, in which the bulls, on the whole, tend to survive. The day we left, which coincided with the end of Ramadan, there was a bombing further south that killed three Muslim kids.
Starting each day with a swim in the pee-warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, I would watch as bulls were led along the shell-studded beach.
Later I talked to a dissolute Dutchman who habitually leant against the hotel wall as if it were too much to defy gravity on his own. Married to a Thai woman, his father in law has fighting bulls, making Muk, as he is known, something of an insider. Thais rarely go by their real name, fearing ghosts. Using a nickname is a clever ploy designed to fool them. The hotel owner had been named Mookie by his Thai wife.
‘Walking on the beach makes their legs strong,’ he told me. Then they are led, literally by the nose, to piles of sand against which they push to gain strength in their shoulders and necks.
It was bloody hot – about thirty-eight degrees in the shade – and in Rhattabhum, Hat Yai province, known more for its sectarian violence than its sporting events, the self-styled ASEAN stadium was filling with bullfighting aficionados. The majority were men. Maybe ninety-five per cent. Foreigners are not common in the South, so we attracted a bit of attention, all of it friendly and smiling. The place was full of what seemed to be Thai versions of the chancers, spivs, crims and pimps I had seen in movies made by Madonna’s ex, Guy Richie – with scars, missing teeth and ritual tattoos that would protect them from bullets, if not from losing money.
After the national anthem, the echoing thump of drums signalled the entry of the bulls. They arrived with their owners and what looked to be a cheerleading team of young men in fitted shirts and skinny jeans. After grooming each bull with water, oil and a mixture of banana applied to its mask to fool its natural instinct to submit to an older-smelling opponent, a team of young men stood and applauded the bull. There was something really bizarre about their mad clapping.
‘To encourage the bull,’ explained an elderly man to my right. He introduced himself as retired police Major General Phaibun.
It may be more likely that it’s to make up for the morning, when a piece of plastic pipe is pushed down the bull’s throat to feed the animal ‘so it has strength.’
But they also burn coconut to keep the mosquitoes at bay. ‘They treat the bulls better than they treat their wives,’ the Dutchman tells me later.
The first pair of bulls yawned, sniffed each other’s muzzles and agreed it was better to go and have a coffee than bang horns in the middle of a sand-filled arena. Their owners frantically gee-ed them up into fighting mode with sticks looped through nose rings, bringing them into each other’s pheromone-charged zones where the testosterone would have to take over. The bulls turned away from each other and looked into the middle distance for about thirty seconds. Then, at the same moment, they spun and locked horns, backing off before doing it again. The crowd, which now filled the stands at both ends, cheered and yelled at the bookies, placing bets as the contest became more serious. The bookies stood on the rail, waving fingers at the audience. Next to me the major general gestured like a worker on the floor of a stock exchange, tapping his pocket and waving two fingers. His 2000 baht disappeared into the maw of the crowd.
Then the bulls, conceding that they were only joking, parted and meandered off. This triggered another round of betting. I was completely baffled as to how the wagers were determined. The coaches, both armed with long sticks, tried to bring the bulls back together. They succeeded, but the contest was half-hearted until one bull let fly with a wet steam of shit and then ran away to circle the perimeter of the grounds. The other stood still, looking a bit dazed. Peggy Lee’s song ‘Is That All There Is?’ sang in my mind.
The major general touched my arm and smilingly announced that he had won 6000 baht.
The next pair took to it, locking horns, heaving and panting as the fight took its toll in energy and, occasionally, blood. I bet on a light-brown bull that had been pawing the ground, tossing up sand and looking resolute. But after fifteen minutes of battle it walked away, as did my 100 baht.
Finding the bullfight had been a challenge. We had noticed bulls being exercised on the beach in front of our hotel and the laconic German who managed the place explained that they were in training for the bullfights. Bullfights? Hang about. This was Thailand. He called his friend the mayor, and indeed our luck was in. The event, held three times a year, would be on in two days’ time, about an hour’s travel from Songkhla.
We programmed the GPS to get us there, but information was muddled. It was in this village – no, that one; it started early – no, it started at 9 a.m. So we left at 8 a.m. and found our way to the first of the mentioned villages. Having no idea what to do next, we looked for a policeman to ask. We found the police station but someone had died and the place was full of cops in white bowing at a corpse on a bier at the back of the open room. Flowers and candles made it look more like a wat than a police station. So we tried the fire station. We speak little Thai and called in for assistance from those back at the hotel. An obviously off-duty fireman in nylon shorts, bare chest and battered rubber sandals left his card game, jumped on his motorbike and offered to take us to the turnoff.
We found a field decorated with bull-pats and cars, and full of men in bad leather cowboy hats, mirror shades and black clothing. This had to be it... I jumped out at the entrance and mimed a bull’s horns, which managed to get at least a twitch of a smile from the young bodybuilders officiating.
Yes – over there.
It was expensive by local standards. At least 900 baht (US$30 for two of us). I think they assumed we wanted the honeymoon suite. I offered ‘whah... peng’ (expensive). An old grey-haired man with a cheap yellow plastic hard-hat and sparse four-day whiskers around his few teeth laughed, grasping my hand in his hard farmer’s one, and nodding in agreement. Later he would repeat the handshake and smile as I left.
We were introduced to the man – no, the dude, more like – who owned the arena. He had dressed appropriately in a Playboy shirt and tight Levis, with slick, well-cut hair. He had the self-satisfied smile of the increasingly rich and kept a tight smile as he answered my questions. Yes, the bulls were matched for size, horn length, leg strength, and age. Owners signed contracts agreeing to the match and to some income-sharing when the fight was over. I learned later that, depending on the bets, this might amount to US$400,000. The bulls had been brought in ten days earlier to get used to the place. No, I couldn’t go over for a closer visit. I might terrify them.
The bullfighting was infectious and we stayed for another bout. Again, I chose what I thought was a street-fighting bull and offered another 100 baht. The crowd was roaring, shouting and gesturing. The support teams did handstands and a lot of pelvic thrusting. I called to the spirit of Freud and the word sublimation came back.
Scientists have suggested very recently that ever-shrinking levels of human testosterone – the hormone responsible for heavy brows, body hair and random grunting – is also responsible for the expansion and sophistication of human societies. Less testosterone enables more productive cultures and our ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another. Listen up, boys: that, in essence, means that the triumph of role models promoted by Rambo and by Transformer director Arnold Schwarzenegger would more likely take us back to the Flintstone era. Nevertheless, the need for the audience to pour their sexual energy into the bulls was fascinating.
My bull was behaving bravely, bouncing on his back legs and lunging ferociously at his black opponent. The black bull rallied and pushed back, and for a few minutes the pair were below us, blood staining the bandages on their horns.
As they shoved and heaved, breathing heavily and locked together, the black bull let go a load of shit. Yay, I thought, I have won... though I didn’t even know what the odds were. I had had no idea how the day would turn out and I was shocked at how much pleasure I had got from the primitive clashes. Now relieved of its load, the black bull pulled back, gave a mighty heave and I could hear the thwack as they banged against each other again. My bull, seeing the writing on the wall, dislodged itself from its opponent’s horns and trotted away. The crowd went wild, the minders danced and swung fists in the air, and others ran for safety as the pissed-off loser swung his horns in their direction.
These bulls could teach humans something, I thought. When the odds were clearly against a win they merely walked or trotted away, keeping as far from their opponent as they could. They did not look ashamed or embarrassed. It seemed, if I may anthropomorphise, that they kept their dignity. Humans not only coaxed them to fight when they were reluctant to do so, but as we see in hot spots everywhere, humans keep on fighting. We fight to the death; bulls fight to the capitulation. I have respect for bull power.
As we left, the young women we had met told us that one man had bet four million baht so far. That's a little over US$110,000. No wonder there were so many cops standing around. But this is Asia. Who knows whose interests they were there to protect.
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